Monday, April 16, 2018

Black Seas

Autumn’s grief was not long, and the cold came down early from the north, bringing the ice that gathered between the islands and ground like stones trapped between the hard shores. The night skies came alive with the northern fire, and the wind bit through fur cloak and leather jerkin. The winter would come early, and hungry, in this year of battles.

Vane made his way up the stony hillside to where the cave crouched like a yawning maw, as though he could go in and be devoured by the powers that lay enchained beneath the earth. The headland was heavy with grass just browning in the cold, and the winds whipped at him across the sea. When he looked northward he saw the trails of ice flowing down from the north, the clear water between it narrower every day. This would be a hard winter, and his task would be made simpler.

He was a sea-watcher, charged by King Arnan to watch the coasts, and when the summer season of trade and warfare died, he might put away his guardianship. When the straits and narrows lay locked in ice, there was nothing to watch for, and he would shut himself away within his earthen fort and wait for the thaw. He had one slender ship and twenty men to row her, if need be. He did not need much else.

But now Kamlath sent word to him, and he had sought a reason to ignore her, but a seer-woman could not be lightly disregarded. Even if she was no bane-witch, still he did not trust her powers. He was a man of steel and leather and wood, and he did not wish any contact with the great powers that flowed unseen through the world.

Yet his dreams had been dark. All summer he had watched for an invasion, for a counter-blow to come from the usurper Hror after the bloody invasion of his land. He watched for ships upon the dark sea, and waited, and nothing came. And now, as the year ended, he woke from twisting dreams, seeing iron ships upon a bloody sea, feeling them close.

The smell of the cave was fish and tanning leathers, and he hesitated there for a moment, but he went inside, ducking beneath the low arch of the entrance. He gripped the hilt of his dagger, not sure what it was he feared. Kamlath worked no curses, and he knew men had come to her cave and left it again unharmed. He disliked caverns and hidden places, where the Undergods might still hold sway.

He descended narrow steps cut into the rock by an unknown ancient hand and emerged into the hidden heart of the seeress’ cave. She sat on a bed of hides beside a fire with a copper bowl of water before her. She looked up with her sightless eyes when he drew close to her, and she smiled.

Kamlath was not old. She had a youthful face and golden hair worked into heavy braids. He saw the scar at her temple tattooed over with knotted designs, and her eyes open and clouded and blind, yet not unseeing. “Hello Vane Storm-Eye, watcher of the seas,” she said. “I am glad you have come. Will you sit?”

He wanted to refuse, but he did not. He lowered himself carefully to the furs across from her, glad of the warmth of the fire against the damp chill. He levered his sheathed sword forward across his thighs and rested one hand on it. “I have never sought you,” he said gruffly. “Why do you seek me?”

“Because I see what you see,” she said. “Only I see more clearly, because my eyes are not clouded.” She smiled. “You dream of ships on the sea by night, stealing past while you are unaware, and I see them as well.”

He tensed, not liking that she knew his mind, but then he shook it off. “You have seen it? Is it a true seeing?”

She nodded. “A mist will come tonight, and a single ship will come seeking a path through the ice. He is a scout, sent to find the way for others.”

He was silent for a moment, wondering whether he might believe her, whether he dared not to. “I can sail south and warn the high halls,” he said. “I can see the men are roused.”

She shook her head. “Hror comes swift behind his pathfinder. With a dozen ships he will strike at Arnan’s hall – there will not be time to gather in enough men to stop him. He has come to harvest the head of the king, and he will have it.”

Vane ground his teeth. “What would you have me do?”

“You have to defeat the pathfinder. Thane Ranne sails ahead of his new lord, and he is wise to the ways of the sea and the ice. But if you sink him, or lead him astray, that will slow Hror in his path. Then you might have time to warn the king.”

He was silent again, thinking. If she spoke true, then Ranne would be aboard a true reaver’s ship, with a hundred hearthmen or more beside him. Vane could not oppose such a craft with his twenty men. Yet there were places with shoals and jagged stones. He might lead the other ship to where it would be grounded, or ripped open. It could be done. His seacraft against Thane Ranne, said to be a treacherous sea-fighter himself. In the ice and the mist, the odds might be evened enough.

Vane touched his sword. “It may be done, though it will not be easy.” He looked at her. “Sail with me.”

She seemed startled. “Me? I am no warrior-woman, nor am I a sea-witch filled with the powers of the dark. I can avail you little.”

“You see through darkness and through falsehood,” he said. “If I am to hunt this wolf in the night, I will need your power, your sight. Come with me.”

She was silent for a long moment, tongue moving behind her teeth, and then she nodded just once. “Very well, sea-warden,” she said. “Let us go.”


It was not easy work to put to sea before sunset. The men had to be roused from their hearth fires and their honey-wine. Vane had to kick and curse them to get them from within the walls of their fort and out into the cold twilight. The ship lay beached on the stones, and they had to draw away the heavy tarp that covered it and drag it into the ice-choked waves. They thought he was mad, but that was why they dared not raise a hand or voice against him. They also knew that Vane Storm-Eye knew the seas in the islands better than any living man. They knew he would not lead them astray.

In the dark it was not easy, and he took the tiller and steered as much by memory and feel as by what little he could see. The men rowed, bending their backs to the oars and dragging their strokes through the ice that ground and groaned like stones in the water. Vane leaned on the tiller and felt the currents, felt the way the ice pushed at the hull, felt the wind as it slackened after the sun was gone.

Kamlath huddled close beside him, heavy in her robe and with her cowl drawn up. The men rowed facing rearward and they looked at her with uncertainty, and some fear. They knew her as the seerwoman who foretold storms or warned of illness, who gave them charms to protect their families from fever and helped them hunt whales and seals in the cold months. Yet she had never gone to sea with them, and they made signs against dark magic.

They left the slow-churning waters close to shore and slipped past two small islands that were hardly more than jutting rocks. The ice thinned and they rowed cleanly through the swells. Vane turned them northward. “There is a current here,” he said. “It comes down from the east side of the Burning Island and passes through the strait here. Will Ranne follow it?”

He looked to Kamlath and waited, wondering if he was a fool to trust in her powers, but she only nodded, not showing her face. “Yes. He will follow it.”

Van nodded and steered them northward, angling them more to the east. The strait came down this way, and the current would bring Ranne more westward if he let it. But Ranne was said to be sea-wise, and so he would know there was an outpost on the west side of the strait, and the rocks there were more treacherous. He would pull himself away to the east side, hoping to slip past.

The tide was coming in, and Vane knew a place that would be perfect to wait. There was a finger of land that thrust outward, angling south, and when the tide was low it encompassed a muddy, stony shallow, but when the tide rose it was a small inlet, and it would shelter them from waves and floating ice until the time was right.

With casual skill he turned them around and led the men to back them into the inlet. If they swept their oars too deep they felt the bottom scrape against the wood. It was shallow here, and by dawn it would strand them, but they would not be here by then.

He sent a man across to make them fast to a stunted, leaning tree and then he had the men light fire-pots and conceal them, so no glimmer of light showed through. They strung their bows, rubbing wax on the strings to keep them from swelling in the damp air. Their arrows were dabbed with foul-smelling pitch, ready to be kindled and shot. They could not face a war-galley in open combat, but in the mist they might set fire and escape, leaving her to burn.

“It will not be easy,” Kamlath said in the quiet. “Ranne is said to be a great sea-lord. He will be wary.”

“That is why I have brought you, seeress,” he said. “You will help me ambush him, and you will help me escape him.” He almost laughed. “If you foresaw doom for me, you would not now be aboard my ship.”

He saw her face then, pale in the almost nonexistent light. “I cannot see any outcome, Storm-Eye,” she said. “Battle and danger cloud my vision, for there are too many choices that could be made, too many outcomes possible.” She laughed a little. “I am here so you will not think me a liar, or a coward who trades in fear and portents. If Hror takes the kingdoms he wishes, then I foretell doom, so I will do what I must.” She shifted and drew her robe closer around herself. “But I can promise no future. I can see neither doom, nor triumph. There is yet all cause to be afraid, and so you should be.”


As she had promised, the sliver of moon vanished behind clouds, and then a mist descended all around, seeping from the rocks and the crests of the waves, hanging over the ice-haunted sea until they could see nothing before them. Van held his hand before his face and could not even see the motion of it. The men whispered, speaking low and nervous. They knew he could guide them in the sightless dark – they had all seen him do it – but it was not a fit night for men to go out upon the sea. In the dark, all manner of fears stalked unseen and deadly.

Vane leaned on the tiller and listened, not moving, not even breathing loudly. He listened. A war-galley with a hundred men would not pass silently. He strained and sought to hear the telltale rasp of ice on hull or the creak of oars. Ranne would come this way, trying to avoid the lookout point in the west, and then he would use the ice that gathered at the edge of the current as a guide. Vane knew he would hear it, if he were close enough.

Kamlath put her hand on his leg and made a small hissing sound between her teeth. Vane held stock-still, listening, and then he heard it creeping out of the north, the faint groan of oars, of many oars. He patted the nearest man on the shoulder and the touch was passed up along the length of the ship. The men stirred, trying to be quiet as they grasped their oars again. Now they could all hear it, the low, rhythmic sound.

He waited, breathless and listening, as the sound grew nearer, and then he heard the ship begin to pass by their little inlet. He heard little scraping of ice on the hull, and he realized Ranne was rowing just out of the shoreside ice to make less sound. It was a canny move that impressed him. It showed skill.

A touch on the rearmost man’s shoulder and the men began to row, keeping their oars shallow and pulling easy so they did not splash the waters. Vane leaned on the tiller, lifting the rudder from the bottom so it did not scrape. He let it just brush over the tops of the moss-grown stones so he could feel his way. The mist was heavy and he could not see anything, but he knew these waters like his own hand. With only the slightest scrape of wood on submerged rock, they slipped free into the black waters.

Now there was ice all around them, but he timed the strokes of his rowers with the lapping of the waves, so they were disguised, and the sound was lost. They cut quickly across the channel of ice and out into the strait. Once there was free water around them he turned them southward to follow the wake of the larger ship. He could feel they were close in the shape of the waves.

His ship was smaller and slimmer, and she would skim faster over the water and turn more quickly. But his twenty men could not stand in battle against the crew of a war-galley, and in a chase sixty rowers with spare men to replace them would run him right down. He had to use the mist to draw in close, and strike.

Now he steered by feel, using the rudder to sense the waves of the ship’s wake and the currents of the strait. He was as blind as Kamlath now, and like her he used all his other senses to find his way. There was pride in this – no other man could guide this ship. He had lived in these waters for all the six and twenty years of his life, and he knew them better than anyone. Now was the test of all that knowledge, and of every trick of watercraft he knew.

The currents grew swifter here, as they drew near the headland, and he knew they tended to pull ships closer into shore. He guided them out into slightly deeper water, but that meant he could not feel the wake of the galley against the rudder, and he had to hunt by feel. He quickened their pace, risking the noise for more speed. They arrowed through the dark, the men all facing him with their faces hidden by the dark, all of them trusting him to steer them true.

Kamlath touched his leg again. “There,” she said, her voice low. She pointed to the left, and forward. “They hear us. They are waiting.”

He could not afford to doubt her. “Up oars,” he murmured, and the men passed the order down and obeyed, lifting their oars clear of the water so they glided along, silent. He turned them inward, catching a swirl of current that drew them on a little more, angling them in. He heard nothing but wind and wave, and then the smallest fragile sound of metal on metal, so close he felt he could touch it.

He knew where they were, and he took a gamble. He put the men back to rowing and he turned hard left, cutting across the wake of the ship ahead. He felt the push of her in the water and knew she was so close. He might have kissed her rudder if he’d been at the bow. He smelled men and leather and he heard a cough, and then he gave the order to attack, a sudden whisper fierce as a slash.

The men drew oars across their knees and took up their bows. They set nock to string and only then they thrust the pitched points into the small, husbanded braziers. The sudden flare of the kindling arrows was terribly bright after the ages of dark and mist, and Vane kept his gaze away, looking resolutely into the dark so his night vision would not be ruined.

“There!” Kamlath hissed, and they followed her outthrust arm and loosed a burning volley into the dark, the burning arrows slashing through the mist. Some fell into the water, some vanished, but a half-dozen struck something unseen, and then there was a chorus of shouts and the splash of oars.

“Back water! Back water!” Vane shouted, pitching his voice to carry. His men dropped their bows and bent to the oars. They knew what he meant with that command, and so they pulled hard to send them shooting forward. He dragged the tiller hard and brought them around to the south. He saw the burning points on the other ship, and so he could judge distance and speed. He heard shouts, and then arrows slashed into the water behind them. One struck hard in the deck beside him and he snapped it off with his foot.

Now they were abeam of the other ship, and he hissed for another volley. His men were grinning as they grabbed for their bows and lit another twenty arrows. The bows bent and the night sang with the string sounds as they all loosed quickly, one after another. This time more of them found their mark, and the ship was suddenly limned with points of fire.

Vane heard the shout from the other ship as his men grabbed for their oars, and he knew they could not slip past this time. “Down!” he shouted, and he threw himself behind the rail, pulling Kamlath with him and covering her body with his.

Arrows struck down like hail, and he felt the blows through the deck as they bit into the wood. He heard men cry out as they were struck, and he felt his heart heavy as he realized he had made the wrong choice, and now he had fewer men, which would mean slower motion, and they would be caught.

He was up, and he caught at Kamlath’s robe, pulled her close to his face. “Will they pursue?” he hissed, and she swallowed hard and then nodded. He released her and then seized the tiller again. “Row!” he bellowed, knowing the other ship would hear them. If they meant to follow him, then he still had a chance.

The men took up their oars and pulled hard as more arrows scythed down. In the dark and the fog the enemy archers had misjudged, and the volley fell astern of them as they leaped ahead in the water. Four of his men lay still, or barely moving. Now he had seventeen against a hundred men. He almost laughed.

He heard shouts and then the water churned behind him as they war-galley dug in its oars and followed. He steered left, driving in toward the headland. It was close ahead, and in the dark it was invisible, but he heard the shallow waves lapping at the rocks. The waters grew shallow there, close into the shore. Too shallow for the larger ship.

He looked back and saw fires still crawling on the enemy craft, even as men doubtless struggled to douse them. Pitch was not easy to drown, especially when it was cold. It stiffened and clung. He laughed and looked astern as his ship cut the waters. “Row!” he howled, to make sure they kept on his trail. He heard more arrows scatter in the water behind them and bared his teeth. Now they were pulling hard, and they would overtake him, but not soon enough.

He felt the pull and push of the waves close into the shore. The water was heavy with ice, and he used that to steer, pushed against it, feeling the way along the rocky promontory, and then he turned hard and a single massive stone like the fang of a dragon slid by close enough to touch, draped with weeds and crawling with pallid crabs. The men’s oars rattled against it.

Ranne was too close, his oarsmen pulling furiously, driven by anger. Their blood was up, and so they did not stop to think. He heard someone shouting commands – perhaps the thane had come to his senses, but he was not in time.

Vane watched as the galley came on, limned with the sparks of fire they had not been able to extinguish. It was so close he could smell the pine stink of the tar. For a moment he thought it would have them, and then it reared up as if struck from below. Like teeth, the rocks ripped into the hull with a dreadful sound, and he heard screams.

He brought them around quick as a striking shark, rode the ice-heavy waves up and over and then back toward the galley. It was stuck at an angle, caught fast on the rocks, and he hissed for his men to take up their bows again. This time he joined them, lashing the tiller to keep the ship steady, and he lit a blazing arrow.

As one they loosed, and then loosed again. Burning arrows studded the galley’s hull, caught on her mast and her deck. Men screamed as they were struck, and he saw a man flailing as the flames clawed at him, struggling to beat the fire out with his hands before he leaped desperately into the freezing sea.

They loosed again, and again, lighting the warship from one end to the other with fires that clung and began to spread. Some arrows came to answer them, but Vane took the tiller again and steered them away into the mist. Ice ground and washed against the hull and the men took their oars and rowed once again. Their breath blew out and joined the mist above the sea. They were weary, and he knew it, but they were nearly done with their work.

He watched as the war-galley burned, the flames growing and joining until nothing could stop them. He saw by the light of the fire as men leaped into the sea to escape death, only to find another. Laden with armor and furs they struggled in the freezing waters. The waves dashed them against the rocks and dragged them under. He heard their screams for mercy and aid, and he made himself turn away. It pained him to feed men to the dark hunger of the sea.

The men rowed more slowly as he steered them toward home, across the strait. Some of Ranne’s men might survive, but they would be alone, cold and hungry, stranded on an island as winter came down on them. No scout would return to Hror from this ship.

“You have your victory,” Kamlath said. She stood on unsteady legs and leaned against him as they ship rolled in the waves. “Now you can warn King Arnan of what comes for him.”

“Yes. We will gather supplies and then go south.” He caught her shoulders in his arm. “You were my very eyes in the dark. You will come with me.”

She almost laughed. “I am a blind woman, Storm-Eye. My place is not on the sea.”

He kissed her then, felt her surprise, and maybe something more. “Come with me,” he said. He kept his arm around her as he steered through the mist, and she did not draw away from him. They left behind the burning and the blood, and followed the path of the darkened sea.

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